Trafficking in Band Width

Right: MP3-sharing program deepens conflict between companies and listeners

February 28, 2000|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff

Imagine walking into a music store, handing over a list of hundreds of your favorite songs, and leaving with all of them -- without paying a cent.

That's what tens of thousands of college students around the country are doing -- only they go to the Internet instead of Sam Goody. It's all possible because of Napster, a song-trading program that has the music industry in an uproar over what it calls "a giant online pirate bazaar."

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Napster's publisher, charging that the California company has provided the ultimate burglary tool for music thieves. But so far, it has stopped hardly anyone.

"Napster's great," says Clark Cogan, a 19-year-old freshman at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. "I haven't bought a CD since last May. I think it's terrible the record companies are trying to fight it, they're just trying to limit our rights to information and Internet access."

Napster is a free Windows program available to anyone over the Internet, but its heaviest users are on college campuses, where students enjoy high-speed Internet access in their dorm rooms. The fast connections enable Napster to download computer-coded music files, called MP3s, in as little as 10 seconds.

Anyone running Napster over an Internet connection can enter an "online music community" populated at any time by thousands of other visitors. A similar program called Macster gives Apple Macintosh users entree to the network.

Each visitor makes available from five to 1,500 songs available for others to download at the click of a mouse button. Ranging from Elvis to Nine Inch Nails to the Backstreet Boys, almost all are copyrighted, and transferring them is usually illegal.

Threatened by the prospect of losing millions in revenues to the free trade of its music, the record industry is ready to go to war.

"We are being robbed," said Ron Stone, president of Gold Mountain Entertainment, which represents such recording artists as Bonnie Raitt and Ziggy Marley. "The kids are just gobbling up our product and the music business is going to deteriorate dramatically. In the long run, Napster will be the end of us."

Adds Simon Renshaw, manager of the Dixie Chicks, in a statement on RIAA's Web site: "If the Internet thieves are not stopped or better regulated, it not only robs current artists but might have even more serious repercussions for the next batch of artists."

Meanwhile, many college networks are bogging down under the load of Napster traffic. Indiana University banned Napster after discovering that song traffic was using up 50 percent of its network bandwidth, and 57 other colleges nationwide have followed suit.

No Maryland college is known to have banned Napster, but academic officials are well aware of its presence. A consortium of recording industry lawyers sent Loyola College a letter, reminding the school that Napster users were contributing to piracy and urging administrators to track down violators.

Mike Dieter, Loyola's senior network engineer, said the college doesn't condone use of its network for illegal activity. But policing Napster is no easy task.

"It's difficult to place restrictions on this kind of thing," Dieter said. "Most educational institutions want complete free and unrestricted access to information. How do we reconcile that kind of attitude with the need to protect the college's liability? I'm not sure what the answer is."

Not to mention that any college that pursues violators would be rounding up hundreds, if not thousands, of its students who see Napster as a playfully daring way to build up music collections.

"There's so much of it going on, I just don't know that there's much that can be done about it," Dieter said. "It's like trying to put out a 10-alarm fire with a garden hose."

Rodney Petersen, director of policy and planning for the office of Information Technology at the University of Maryland, College Park, has been working with the RIAA in an educational campaign to dissuade students from illegal song swapping. But he said the university has no plans to ban Napster.

Further confounding the music industry is Napster's argument that the program has a legitimate purpose. Easy for even a novice to use , Napster gives unsigned and unproduced musicians an opportunity to make their music available to a mass audience.

"We will not deny access to information based on its content, provided it's not illegal," Maryland's Petersen said. "With Napster, the tricky issue for the RIAA is that there are legitimate uses. The courts aren't going to strike down a technology just because it potentially has some illegal uses. You don't ban VCRs just because a few people may make some illegal tapes."

Napster was written last year by a 19-year-old Northeastern University student, Shawn Fanning. The program became an instant sensation among Internet music seekers who have found that most pirate MP3 Web sites are shut down quickly by the RIAA.

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